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Is life better or worse after serving in the defence force?

Is life better or worse after a career in the Australian Defence Force?

The 2021 Census simply asked respondents whether you are or were a member of the ADF. Combined with other Census data points we can analyse current ADF personnel and veterans alike.

Let’s start with the basics. About 85,000 men and women are currently serving. The veteran count, defined as anyone who previously served in the ADF, is 496,000. Over time the ADF has become more female (21 per cent of current members vs 13 per cent of former members), a bit more multicultural (16 per cent of current members and 14 per cent of former members were born overseas), and more indigenous (3.2 per cent current members vs 2.1 per cent former members).

Queensland is the veteran capital of Australia, housing 140,000 former ADF members. We expected to see older veterans to have moved to the Sunshine State, but the concentration might well be a result of the strong military presence in Queensland.

Victoria is only home to 19 per cent of the veteran population while housing 26 per cent of the total population. Considering the low share of active personnel (13 per cent), Victoria still seems to be an attractive destination for veterans of all ages.

The most common age among currently serving members is 27. Half of the ADF is aged between 18 and 33. The military remains a young man’s game. There are no members aged 65-plus (advisory roles can be held by older people though).

The age profile of our veterans reflects historic involvements in wars. The small spike in the 90s are the remaining WWII veterans.

More than  730,000 Australians, mostly men, served in the ADF during WWII. One in three of the 4200 men aged 95-plus is a WWII veteran. We are slowly losing our last eyewitnesses of WWII. The spike of veterans in their 80s reflect the 77,000 Australians that took part in the Korean War, while the spike in the 70s is caused by the 60,000 ADF personnel that were active in the Vietnam War.

Financial gain

Does serving your country pay off? We can only speculate about the meaning that staff derive from serving in the ADF, but we can easily compare the financial and health outcomes of veterans with the rest of the population.

Financially, serving in the ADF is a smart move and sets people up for long-term success. Of the current personnel in their 30s, 74 per cent earn more than $78,000 per annum – only 37 per cent of civilians in their 30s only reach that threshold (54 per cent of veterans in their 30s).

The same general trend persists throughout the lifecycle. The financial outcomes for (former) ADF members are much better than the Australian average. This is also reflected in the higher homeownership rate among veterans. Renting in old age is a strong indicator for poverty. Only 19 per cent of all veterans rent, against the national average of 29 per cent. The better financial outcomes are linked to the training the ADF provides. No one leaves service without practical skills and qualifications.

For what it’s worth, veterans (22 per cent) are also significantly more likely to volunteer than those who never served (15 per cent), suggesting a healthier social network.

So, all is well in the world of Defence then? Health data suggests the opposite.

How is the health of our veterans?

Let’s start with the good news. Veterans are 32 per cent less likely than the rest of the population to suffer from asthma (that number even goes up to 42 per cent for current personnel).

Physical labour, an active lifestyle, fresh air – whatever the reasons, asthma isn’t a major issue in the ADF. Current personnel are three times less likely to be diabetic and 32 per cent less likely to have arthritis than the national average in the relevant age group. Probably a reflection of a physically active lifestyle.

That’s where the good news ends. Veterans are 75 per cent more likely to be diabetic and 73 per cent more likely to arthritic.

Things get worse from here. Veterans have cancer at double the national average, are two-and-a-half times as likely to have a heart disease, and twice as likely to have dementia. These are, of course, only top-level figures but provide a starting point for further investigation.

What we can say for certain is that overall health outcomes for veterans need to be improved dramatically.

We haven’t even spoken about the elephant in the room yet: mental health outcomes in veterans. I wrote in my column on mental health last week that women are probably more likely to seek help with mental health issues and that male mental health conditions are likely vastly under reported. While civilian women are almost twice as likely as civilian men to have a medically diagnosed mental health disorder, we see a reversal of that trend in the ADF mental health data.

Stark trends among men

Only 1.7 per cent of female personnel claim a chronic mental health condition – three times lower than the male figure (4.8 per cent). For veterans that trend is even starker as 8.2 per cent of male veterans and five times fewer women (1.6 per cent) report poor mental health.

Interestingly, active personnel tend to report better mental health outcomes than veterans and civilians. It appears that serving in the ADF feeds the hunger for meaning that so many people can’t seem to find in their jobs.

It is of utmost importance that we research the reasons behind these mental health figures in more detail. One hypothesis might be that male personnel are much more likely to have been actively involved in combat.

Another might be that the masculine culture in the military leads female personnel to act “extremely male” and consequently forego seeking mental health treatment. Census data can’t answer these questions. At least we know where the ADF and researchers should focus their research efforts into mental health.

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